Office spaces are as unique as each company, representing the personality, culture, and values of all who work in them. From tenant finishes to major renovations, the size and scope of each project is different, but one thing remains the same—working in occupied spaces comes with additional challenges and some best practices to ensure client and employee satisfaction.
Communication is Key
With many stakeholders, from owners down to employees using the space during construction, communication is crucial to project success. “Setting goals and expectations at project kick-off helps teams develop a plan and schedule that satisfies all parties. Every client has different requirements, and those can change throughout the process, so open communication ensures we meet their needs throughout the process,” said Kevin Rogert, vice president at JE Dunn.
During the renovation at Lightwell City Center Square renovation in Kansas City, Mo., the client took a different approach to begin the project. Because the building had not been upgraded in 40 years, the sight of construction crews and sounds of hammers and drills meant work was underway—and that brought excitement to the tenants. “The owner wanted us to be visible as a way to let tenants know we were making progress on much needed improvements. After a few weeks, they asked that we implement some of the processes we typically use when working in occupied spaces to limit the noise. We anticipated that this may be the case, so we already had a plan.
Planning for a change in direction and communicating with the client constantly allowed for a smooth transition when work shifted to a more traditional approach, underscoring the importance of not just communicating regularly, but also of planning for it. “One of the first things we did when we kicked off this project was to establish a point person to lead communications. This ensured changes, progress, or any potential issues were routed to the correct people and that all parties stayed on the same page throughout the project,” said Rogert.
Communication between the team, trade partners, and clients is critical to the success of every project, but renovating occupied spaces means there is another partner that relies on clear communication—employees using the space. The renovation of 4800 Main in Kansas City, Mo., involved reskinning the former Board of Trade building and modernizing the interior to a Class A office space. Due to the sheer task of removing and replacing the outside of the building with people inside, the team made it a point to overcommunicate, so expectations were clear to the owner as well as employees in the building.
In addition, shortly after project kick-off, the newly secured anchor tenant, a design firm, wanted to take over the design to better fit their needs. This not only meant we would work with a new design team, but the engineering partners changed as well; this took project communication to a whole new level. “When the new engineers got on board, they did not think the existing HVAC system—that we planned to use—would work. We then had to pull the skin and entire HVAC system to accommodate the new building loads,” said Senior Project Manager Jason Parker. “This led us to change our entire approach to project communications in general. We began to break things down a little better and communicated more often but more simply, setting the expectation of overcommunicating with all parties, not just trade partners – with the owner, building maintenance, facilities manager, etc. – to get a good handle on occupancy load and locations of where we would be working in the building.”
While overcommunicating alleviates potential issues during the project, establishing a plan with owners for phasing and access ensures we can minimize disruptions to occupants working in the space. The renovation for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City involved an office at full capacity in a tight downtown location. “One of the fist conversations we had with the client was to identify the areas we would be working, so we could determine the best hours to minimize disruptions to the employees,” said Senior Project Manager Chris Catron.
To accommodate the owner, the team implemented a graveyard shift to complete much of the work, and crews would run from midnight to 8 a.m. “Working overnight gave the teams more access to critical areas. It made it easier for our team to shut down water or power to certain areas without disrupting tenants who were trying to work.,” said Catron.
Early Site Planning
Working in occupied spaces requires coordination to alleviate disruptions to tenants, but it also requires extensive up-front communication to determine logistics and site plan for materials storage and laydown areas. The first step is to figure out what is available on site. “At Blue Cross Blue Shield, we had no laydown space due to the downtown location and full occupancy of the building. So, we had to figure out options on site as well as last minute delivery plans from vendors. For this project, we negotiated with the owner to take up two parking stalls in their busy parking lot to store materials and tools in containers, so we could rotate stuff in as the project progressed,” said Catron.
Another key step in the planning process is communicating site conditions up front, before the bidding process. Trade partners need to know potential challenges before they bid the job as they relate to space, staffing, hours, etc. Whether it’s limited storage, no laydown area, or just-in-time delivery, getting everyone on the same page helps all partners work together and determine the most efficient plan for the owner.
Site conditions also affect building tenants, so clearly communicating early, often, and in multiple ways with end users is part of a successful plan. In Lightwell, that meant implementing a plan to communicate directly with building occupants. “Renovations to the lobby, such as tearing out the escalator, significantly impacted those working in the building, so we would have to reroute people often—and those routes would change as we completed different phases,” said Rogert. “With different parts of the lobby and building closed off all the time, we would communicate with tenants via email as well as elevator signs, so they would not only know what was being completed, but they also knew exactly how it would impact them as they navigated the building.”
Expect the Unexpected
The last thing to note about working in occupied spaces is that even with all the communication, planning, and site prep, inevitably, unforeseen challenges will arise. From inaccurate as-builts and tenants in areas that we thought were vacant to issues like the last-minute HVAC change in 4800 Main, expecting the unexpected is part of the process. “Many times, building conditions or other surprises necessitate a quick solution, but that’s where communication and flexibility come into play,” said Catron. “Project teams must stay nimble and reactive and know that most projects will come with some curve balls.” Having an alternate plan is key. No matter how much planning you do up front, there are always things that you find in a renovation that can change your approach. At BCBS, the first phase did not go exactly to plan, so we got all trade partners together and figured out a better way. Once we got through Phase 2, it was smooth sailing to the end. Having great field supervision is also a plus. Superintendents that can think on their feet to solve those problems quickly is a huge cost and time saver, because the quicker you can solve a problem the faster you can implement the solution and keep the schedule on track.
Grow from the Challenges
Like with any challenge, it’s those curve balls that make us better and improve our processes for future projects. They underscore the need for a communication plan and for setting expectations – for the client as well as occupants – as those can evolve with each challenge. From determining an approach up front to accounting for all stakeholders’ needs, managing expectations from top to bottom means clarity of the process, flexibility to tackle challenges, and better collaboration for success working in occupied spaces.